In Photography, Travel Photography

Three years ago I had the chance to see the Alps while visiting Italy around Lago di Garda. I took a few road trips to the border near Switzerland not realizing how close I was to the Stelvio National Park and more so the famous Stelvio Pass. It is the highest paved mountain pass road in the Eastern Alps and the third largest paved road in Europe at 2757m (9045 feet) above sea level. The largest is Col de la Bonette, which is 50 meters higher and is located in the south east of France.

Carlo Donegani was instrumental in the design and inception of this engineering masterpiece. Built from 1820 to 1825, the road has barely changed since its creation. The original purpose of the Stelvio Pass was to connect the former Austrian province of Lombardia with the rest of Austria and was commissioned by the Austrian Empire. The road is literally on the Swiss and Italian border within a 200m range and has a total of 60 or so tight hairpin turns (48 officially on the pass) with drop off corners and very few guardrails. Having done a bit of research, being an automotive enthusiast and a photographer I absolutely had to check out this road. It’s not like Italy is around the corner though so I had to be patient for the next opportunity to head back to Europe.

The road trip to the Stelvio Pass started in Paris and Reims where I attended and photographed one of my best friend’s wedding. Switzerland was only a day away by car so I planned the road trip from here. After relaxing and sight seeing some iconic French attractions we picked up the car and started driving towards Strasbourg and then to Interlaken, Switzerland. Stopping by for only 1 day, we left the next morning towards Stelvio. The route was Interlaken, Bellinzona, San Bernardino, St. Moritz, Stelvio Pass, then to the hotel in Sondrio. Because of time constraints we knew we would have to reach Stelvio before the end of the day.

Passing through the tunnels and mountains from St. Moritz to Bormio we saw many convoys of super cars, millions of dollars worth of exotic automobiles passing us every half hour. We finally got to the open barrier and sign saying “Passo dello Stelvio”. I opened up the engine through the winding roads. The sun was out and weather conditions were great. Getting higher up the terrain, cars started to disappear and we were pretty much alone which was great for photos but not so great in case of emergencies. The greenery started turning to gravel and the mountains became more spooky, the road more daunting. The sun was gone but sunlight was still quite vivid. The top seemed far and at this point we just wanted to get to the peak to see the east decent. The excitement of driving the road slowly started to turn into a challenge, but there was no turning back. After three years of waiting to get to this road, I was going to drive it.

I had hoped that when I got to the top of the pass the sky would be a bit grey and miserable to show the true elements of this road, and to feed into my style of travel photography. The saying “Be careful what you wish for” became somewhat ominous as our trip continued through rocky and dark single lane tunnels. We finally got to a town that was perched in this desolate area. We stopped to take a breather. To my surprise there was barely anybody there and the town was closed, no gas stations for miles. On top of that a storm was rolling in quickly and visibility would be declining very soon.

The photographer in me wanted to go down the pass to get an angle from the bottom so we started the descent. We made it 5 hairpins down when my conscience kicked in and I made the wise decision to turn back. Disappointing as this was, a good adventurer and traveler must know the fine line of when you could be in serious danger. As soon as you get greedy you are no longer doing yourself justice and mistakes can happen. I snapped a series of photos and then pulled a three-point turn in my Mini Cooper on the thin pass road and headed back up to the top.

Backtracking to Bormio, bad weather moved in and the rain started. We were going super slow down the mountain. At this point there was nobody around and barely any sun; we were alone with the elements. My focus on the road was tack sharp; my eyes wide open tracking the apex of each curve. There was a new goal now, to simply descend the mountain without any problems. After around twenty minutes we were back to safer country roads accompanied by a raging thunder storm pouring cats and dogs. We were happy that we did not descend the total east side as it would have been a lot harder to get down with the storm around us. While at that altitude the clouds are not above you, you are in them which means you are pretty much driving in a white out.

After checking into to the lovely Retici Balzi Wine Hotel in Poggiridenti, Sondrio, we sat down to a late supper. Literally driving for the entire day, I was mentally and physically burnt, but I was blessed to have gotten the chance to drive the Stelvio Pass even if it was only for part of it. The photographer in me hoped for a gloomy landscape at the tip of the mountain and that was exactly what I got. The photo I captured is a true representation of this barren wasteland that creates curiosity for the true adventurer but also preys on the weak of heart. It is no place for the inexperienced driver or for that matter anyone in the circumstances we had faced. The Stelvio pass is a beautiful road crafted on a dangerous mountainside and should be experienced to the fullest. That simply needs to be done during the best conditions possible.

Evan Shuster
333 Montreal Commercial Photography, Web Design, Graphic Design, Videography

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